Minister of Education Hassan Diab is probably not having easy days at the office. On top of the already decrepit state of public education, coupled with ongoing protests by teachers demanding higher wages and benefits, this year saw the student population grow by around 15,000 children, the majority of which lack proper shelter or families that can support them. We are of course not talking about the effects of a sudden baby boom, but rather the influx of Syrian students fleeing their alma maters for ours at a rate similar to the increase in violence.
Following various pressures by civil society organizations, Diab, presiding over thousands of employees, finally gave in. He issued a decree late last year instructing all schools operating within Lebanon to receive the incoming Syrian students regardless of their legal status and relieved the Syrian students of entrance fees. Problem solved?
If it were only about decrees, the Syrian students would have long been integrated in the Lebanese schools. With an enrollment rate estimated at 20 percent and a dropout rate approaching 30 percent (double the national average), the Syrian children are rare to be found in the Lebanese school system. Coming from a Baathist education, where Arabic is the main language of instruction, Syrian students in Lebanon face serious problems transitioning to curricula taught largely in French and English, not to mention the different teaching methods. The majority of students, nine years old and above, drop out of school because they cannot understand what is being spoken in class, and there has been no arrangement made between the Lebanese and Syrian governments to see that, if and when students return to Syria, they will be granted accreditation of equivalences.
While the minister’s decree requires schools to receive all Syrian students, many principals choose not to. For many in the border regions, the decree seems like a removed bureaucratic procedure that does not tackle the real problem. The Syrian students generally require intensive remedial classes, and/or a change in the curriculum that would account for their linguistic level in foreign languages — something public schools are not prepared to provide. Syrian students who attend higher classes are supposed to form complex phrase structures and read dense scientific passages in a language they can often only barely spell their name in. What’s more, in school Syrian students have been subjected to social isolation, discrimination and corporal punishment. With a teaching staff that was neither trained nor prepared to deal with this influx, the inevitable happens: Syrians drop out of school, or even worse, many do not even bother to enroll.
According to the decree, the principals should not charge Syrian students school fees as the ministry will reimburse them later. Knowing the state of affairs in the quasi-dysfunctional Lebanese government, the principals are unsurprisingly skeptical. Having to run their schools with tight budgets, they cannot afford delays in payment and so they do what any sane manager would: they cut their future losses by receiving a minimum number of Syrian students.
Other factors exacerbate the problem. With the majority of families suffering financially after leaving everything they had in Syria, many can barely afford a decent shelter, let alone education. Paying for transportation, stationery and other schooling requirements can exert a tremendous financial burden. The increasing insecurity in the North and Bekaa also adds to the feelings of uncertainty as families try to keep quiet and not take risks by sending their children to schools. It doesn’t help that Lebanon still refuses to classify incoming Syrians as refugees, or sign the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees that would protect them (and all the other refugees in the country).
Why should the Lebanese citizenry care? The overflowing problems of electricity and water cuts, inter-sectarian bickering, continuous political deadlocks and fear of a looming civil war seem to be sufficient reasons for them not to take notice of the implacable situation of Syrian refugees. However, as the Syrian influx to the country increases, the number of children between the ages of 12 and 18 is expected to grow. This age group is highly vulnerable to various social ailments such as child labor and militancy. Leaving thousands of desperate, poor and socially secluded teenagers on the streets does not seem a wise course of action.
NIZAR GHANEM is a policy consultant and researcher working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Turkey